Hilary Lawson on error, philosophy and TED: “It’s really a business conference organisation”

Preview: How The Light Gets In.

If you walk north from the main festival site at Hay, through the town along Broad Street onto Heol Y Dwr, you’ll come to a separate enclosure. Inside there are small tents, a three-chambered pavilion, food and music stands, fronted by a repurposed 18th century chapel. You won’t find any readings or book signings. Instead, you’ll find little arguments.

How The Light Gets In, the annual festival organised by the Institute of Art and Ideas, aims to use music and philosophy to destabilise the reigning orthodoxies of modern thought. We no longer live in a religious age, but rather, as John Gray has argued, an age in which secular humanism – with its faith in human and technological progress – is the dominant mode of thought.

The festival was named for Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”, and this year’s theme, “Error, Lies and Adventure”, has been chosen to inspect the cracks. Terry Pratchett, AS Byatt and Terry Eagleton will debate the usefulness of fantasy to human understanding; Will Hutton, Shirley Williams and Cory Doctorow will ask whether we have reached the final days of the American Empire, and Oliver James, Frank Furedi and Richard Bentall will discuss the roll of power and influence in psychiatric practice. These are just three of over four-hundred events.

I spoke to Hilary Lawson, author of Closure (2001) and founder of the Institute of Art and Ideas, about “error”, TED and philosophy.

How did this year’s theme come about?

Each year we go for a theme to structure our events. We try to go for themes that we think are contemporary and at the edge of current thinking. One of the ways in which the festival is a little different from others is that we don’t simply identify well-known people in relevant fields and invite them along to talk. That’s not how we function. We identify what we think are the big intellectual themes, break them into smaller debates, and set about deciding who’s saying the most interesting things about each topic.

In the case of “error, lies and adventure”, there are lots of different layers. The first is that we tend to regard error as being something to be avoided, certainly in public life. Instead we should be looking at error as a way of realising that there’s something wrong with the way one is doing things which provokes new challenge and adventure. I think there was bigger philosophical thought … do you have any philosophical background yourself?

Not especially. My reaction to the theme was to think about the usefulness of error: that not every problem is a deviation which can and ought to be “fixed”. There’s also the serendipitous nature of acquiring knowledge – the hazardous, random aspects of the learning process. A lot of the time we have no control over the way knowledge is spread and I kind of like that. Sorry, that’s a long answer … I don’t have any philosophical training.

But it’s all related. One of the things we have been exploring in the biggest broad-brush sense is where does culture go after postmodernism? If you’re drawing huge brush strokes through decades of thinking – what is going on at the moment? Well, we had modernism and scientism and the belief that science would eventually uncover the truth about everything – and though there are some people who still think that is the case and indeed most of the media still operates in that frame – intellectually speaking, postmodernism and relativism have become more dominant. That’s left a lot of people intellectually lost.

To operate in a postmodern space where there are alternative ways of holding the world and there’s no objective truth is not entirely satisfactory. We have to get things done. We have to decide what matters and what works and all of those sorts of things, but we can’t just revert to some previous modernist notion that we’re going to discover the secrets of the universe tomorrow and that we might just lay them out in an educational form.

So, we could put the rigorous optimism of say, TED talks, at one end of the spectrum, and the useless polarisation of the sciences and humanities at (undergraduate level at least) in our universities, at the other?

I think that the academy has lost itself. As far as philosophy is concerned the academy is still operating with a framework which is one-hundred years old: a sort of Russell-Wittgenstein framework. A belief in clarifying what you mean by your words. This may have been exciting 100 years ago but it certainly isn’t exciting any more. When we started which was four or five years ago I think the primary perception of philosophy was Monty Python’s football match – a sort of joke. You certainly wouldn’t take philosophers seriously, they were just people to be laughed at, couldn’t even manage to kick a football. So our thought was, “this is crazy, it is obviously the case that we are all philosophers in the sense that all we wonder what it means to be alive and what’s going in the world and what’s really true.”

A lot of discussion of science in the media is both misrepresentative and false. I’m particularly irked by the news stories which say “well, y’know, the geneticists say this about our behaviour and so therefore case closed.” A first rate geneticist will in fact tell you our behaviour cannot always be explained by such easy assumptions.

We have lots of science debates, but our science debates aren’t about presenting science, rather, they’re examining whether this is a good way of going about things and asking what are the challenges to it. So in fact, the closer you look at science you see it’s full of underlying arguments and, as it were, black holes in thinking – rather than it being presented as a monolith of knowledge which is gradually uncovering the truth. What we’re trying to do in those situations is identify the big issues which lie behind the developments around science and to examine them and challenge them.

One of the ways in which we differ to TED is that they focus on giving individuals a platform (and I would say, those individuals frequently have commercial interests as well and a particular point to make – it’s really a business conference organisation.) What we do is try to focus on the debate. We do have individual talks, but we don’t let them do that unless they’re also prepared to be in debate and its debates that drive our festival programme and the IAI site.

It’s easy to forget that half of the festival is dedicated to music. Does having live music, in some way, help the intellectual atmosphere along?

The reason we have music is that if you go into a lecture hall, it's rather po-faced. There are all sorts of status and hierarchy issues in the lecture hall. Our venues are relatively small - our biggest venues have an audience of about 250 - so if you’re in our audience you can ask a question or make a point without it being a vehicle for the handful of people wanting to promote themselves. If there is some music drifting in from an acoustic set happening outside it stops people thinking “gosh that’s the professor of Physics from Harvard I can’t possibly have anything to say to them” and it somehow encourages space where people really talk to each other.

Really it's how student life should work: we have our debates and talks during the day, and in the evening we have a party. Of course, some of the best conversations happen in the evening. You see our speakers shouting to each other on the dancefloor about a debate that they’ve been in.

Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to this year, as distinct from last?

People frequently say to me “what’s the thing you’re looking forward to most” and I say “well, we’ve got 450…”, it’s not really reasonable to be looking forward to one. We didn't mention it before, but the third layer to the theme is that if you operate in a postmodernist space, one of the puzzles is that the reason people get lost is that it looks as if anything goes. If there’s no objective truth how do you discriminate between one thing and another? One question that’s interesting there is the question of error. There may not be objective truth but there clearly is error.

Error seems to be a starting point for so many things. The discovery and imagination that has come about through error, for example. Joyce relished mistakes – there are all those great anecdotes about the mistakes in Finnigan’s Wake, which he kept and still exist in the book today. It also has moral connotations. These are, I suppose, further layers.

We’ve tended to focus on trying to avoid error and just trying to present things as “truth”, but in an odd sort of way its almost the reverse, that we can never arrive at an ultimate truth. What is interesting is that we can say things that are in some way wrong. How does that work? How is it that the world enables us to get things wrong, but it somehow doesn’t enable us to get things right?

How The Light Gets In will run from 23 May to 2 June in Hay-on-Wye.

Let there be light. A bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

NICOLA TYSON, COURTESY SADIE COLES HQ, LONDON
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Dave Haslam's history of venues makes nightclub walls talk

Life After Dark: a History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues reveals the ghosts of hedonism past.

“If these walls could talk . . .” The cliché owes its force to the notion that buildings are sentient – the suggestion that what happens inside them leaves a trace element. We feel the power of this idea in very different ways as we tour, say, Versailles or Dachau. It’s an idea very much at play in the best passages of this book.

There is a wonderful moment early on when the author tours the Dean Street Townhouse building in Soho, central London, along with a few young members of staff. The location is now an upscale hotel and restaurant but, as Haslam explains to them, back in 1978 the basement hosted Billy’s nightclub. Billy’s was run by Steve Strange and played host to the burgeoning New Romantic movement, with the likes of Boy George and Spandau Ballet all trooping down the steps off Meard Street. Later on, in 1982, the ultra-hip original Goth club the Batcave opened its doors on the top floor of the same building, and the elevator would have ferried the likes of Robert Smith of the Cure and Marc Almond skywards.

The twentysomething staff don’t seem altogether sure who these people are, but Haslam goes further as he tells them (no doubt to further head-scratching) that the building has in fact been a nightclub since the 1920s, when it was called the Gargoyle. The people who danced and partied there over the decades would have included Henri Matisse, Tallulah Bankhead, Fred Astaire and Noël Coward, he says.

It is a fantastic example of the deep vein of hedonism you sense thrumming behind the walls of many buildings in such areas as Soho, and Haslam extends this approach throughout the book as he travels across Britain, digging into the history of the likes of the Leadmill in Sheffield, the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow, the Cavern in Liverpool and the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, often tracing the origins of the venues back to Victorian times. It makes for a fascinating read, especially if you have ever stood in an old music venue and wondered (as I have often done) about the many previous generations whose fights, fashions, frugs and frocks have played out on the very boards you are treading.

Along the way, there are in-depth, illuminating interviews with figures as diverse as the novelist David Peace (on Goth clubs in Leeds) and James Barton, the co-founder of Cream (on the problems of running a nightclub in a city rife with gang warfare), as well as less familiar names such as Hyeonje Oh, the current owner of the Surakhan restaurant on Park Row in Bristol. Haslam explains to the amiable Mr Oh (in a wonderful scene reminiscent of that visit to Dean Street Townhouse) that, back in the mid-Eighties, the basement of his restaurant played host to the Dug Out club, where the careers of Massive Attack and Nellee Hooper began. None of this means very much to the restaurateur, until Haslam points out that Nellee Hooper has worked with Madonna. Mr Oh has heard of Madonna.

On occasion, the book slides into potted histories of the youth movements that came out of the nightclubs it is documenting. So we get a few pages on the emergence of punk rock, a few pages on the rise of acid house – nothing, frankly, that anyone with a passing interest in music or youth culture wouldn’t already know. I’m not sure we need to hear again that “one of the people energised by the Sex Pistols [at the Manchester Free Trade Hall] was Tony Wilson, who arranged for the band to premiere their ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single . . . on his Granada TV show”, except in a book aimed at the most general reader (which a book with the subtitle of this one surely is not).

Haslam is on much more interesting ground in the basement of a Korean restaurant that once throbbed to the heavy dub reggae whose influence shaped a generation of music performers and producers. Or when he describes the progress of the Coliseum in Harlesden, north-west London, from cinema in 1915, to fleapit punk rock venue in the Seventies – where, in March 1977, you could have seen the Clash (along with three other bands, and a couple of kung fu films) for £1.50 – to the Wetherspoons pub that stands on its site today. In these pages he asks you to imagine Daddy G of Massive Attack working the decks where the crates of produce are now stacked, to see Joe Strummer’s right leg pumping just inches from where office workers now sip discounted Sauvignon. In these pages, he makes the walls talk.

John Niven is the author of the novels “Kill Your Friends” (Windmill Books) and “The Sunshine Cruise Company” (William Heinemann)

Life After Dark: a History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues by Dave Haslam is published by Simon & Schuster (480pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war